Recent petrochemical-related events at latitude 28, longitude 88 bring to mind a somewhat similar-but smaller-in-scale-event some 25 years ago at latitude 44, longitude 73.
Both spills involved petroleum, regulations, leaks and the quintessential governance question of our times: pursuing your chosen enterprise, you must do everything in accordance with the applicable regulations, obtain official approval for equipment design and installation, and pass all operational inspections. And if there's a failure-whose fault is it?
From the regulator's past and present behavior, we can see that the answer would be: even if you meet all our requirements and there's a failure, it's not our fault.
This existential question was already under examination in the construction industry before the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill-actually in Williamstown, Vt., although not in its own little "gulf", and actually involving benzene and related petroleum-based volatile organic compounds, although not crude oil and methane.
Architects and builders had already come to realize that there's a better way to get the building you want than writing it all out, in stupefying regulatory detail-in the project specifications manual which traditionally had been intended to control every aspect of materials and installation.
The better way had already come to be called performance specifications.
It was already beginning to replace the prescriptive specifications method we had been taught in university vocational-trade schools.
For example, in concrete work the objective was in-place concrete strong enough to support the building-a target strength usually described as 3,000 pounds compressive strength per cross-sectional square inch; architects like me wrote the specs to describe and control every detail of the materials: the mixing, and the placement.
Somewhere near the last page of the manual there was mention of the 3,000 psi target (how it would be tested for, and when removal and replacement would be required).
Understandably, the concrete contractors didn't like that heads-we-win-tails-you-lose approach; they defended themselves by demanding that we designers approve, separately and specifically, each aspect of materials and installation.
Ultimately, the architects and engineers (mostly) agreed, and now it's more common to designate the desired design objective for concrete but not every little aspect of materials, mixing, and placement.
Public education chose to stay with prescriptive, not performance, specs as the recent Vermont-led lawsuit against the Federal No Child Left Behind requirement-almost all students "proficient" in reading and math by 2014-has demonstrated.
In the BP spill case, every aspect of the deep-water drilling had been prescribed and regulated by government-right up to the moment of failure.
In the Williamstown situation, the dry-cleaning business Unifirst sought and received special official Montpelier sewage-disposal-design-and-installation-assistance and approval for its septic system. The installation and operation met every regulatory standard. Then it failed.
Benzene showed up in drinking fountains at the next-door elementary school. Mothers-how can I say this graciously-reacted negatively.
Vermont Health Commissioner Roberta Coffin defended both her department and the Agency of Natural Resources by stonewalling.
Protestors-many of Vermont's Beautiful People class-at the health department headquarters in Burlington yelled "You're not gonna treat us like a bunch of farmers!"
Then, somehow, it all went away behind closed-doors. Was the regulatory system ever held as being even partially responsible for its deficient prescriptive specs? Not officially. Unofficially, in secret legal bargaining, maybe. We'll never know.
In the off-shore New Orleans situation, the same governmental regulatory oversight was enforced on the compliant oil-drillers.
The installation and operation met every regulatory standard and inspection. Then it failed.
Oil showed up on the surfaces of water and wildlife. The public-how can I say this graciously-reacted negatively.
Will it ultimately all be secretly settled, just as in Williamstown? Probably.
Will the feds reject even partial responsibility? Probably yes. Will they relinquish writer-and-inspector job-creating prescription specs and adopt a performance spec approach to regulation? Probably no.
If you're bemused by my lat. 44, long. 73 map reference (an inland locale), you're probably one of those non-rural New Vermonters who doesn't recognize such Old Vermont land and farming terminology as headland, link, pins, proud, rod, rood, rowen, or summer meadow either.
It's not in my job description to bring you to "proficient" in Anglo-Saxon/Middle English /Northern New England etymolog, without bonus pay. You'll have to look it up. Warning: some language and geographical proficiency required.
Longtime Vermont resident Martin Harris now lives in Tennesee.